Native apps, the open web, and web literacy

In a recent blog post, John Gruber argues that native apps are part of the web. This was in response to a WSJ article in which Christopher Mims stated his belief that the web is dying; apps are killing it. In this post, I want to explore the relationship between native apps and web literacy. This is important as we work towards a new version of Mozilla’s Web Literacy Map. It’s something that I explored preliminarily in a post earlier this year entitled What exactly is ‘the mobile web’? (and what does it mean for web literacy?). This, again, was in response to Gruber.

Native app

This blog focuses on new literacies, so I’ll not be diving too much into technical specifications, etc. I’m defining web literacy in the same way as we do with the Web Literacy Map v1.1: ‘the skills and competencies required to read, write and participate on the web’. If the main question we’re considering is are native apps part of the web? then the follow-up question is and what does this mean for web literacy?

 Defining our terms

First of all, let’s make sure we’re clear about what we’re talking about here. It’s worth saying right away that 'app’ is almost always used as a shorthand for 'mobile app’. These apps are usually divided into three categories:

  1. Native app
  2. Hybrid app
  3. Web app

From this list, it’s probably easiest to describe a web app:

A web application or web app is any software that runs in a web browser. It is created in a browser-supported programming language (such as the combination of JavaScript, HTML and CSS) and relies on a web browser to render the application. ( Wikipedia)

It’s trickier to define a native app, but the essence can be seen most concretely through Apple’s ecosystem that include iOS and the App Store. Developers use a specific programming language and work within constraints set by the owner of the ecosystem. By doing so, native apps get privileged access to all of the features of the mobile device.

A hybrid app is a native app that serves as a 'shell’ or 'wrapper’ for a web app. This is usually done for the sake of convenience and, in some cases, speed.

The boundary between a native app and a web app used to be much more clear and distinct. However, the lines are increasingly blurred. For example:

 Web literacy and native apps

As a result of all this, it’s probably easier these days to differentiate between a native app and a web app by talking about ecosystems and silos. Understanding it this way, a native app is one that is built specifically using the technologies and is subject to the constraints of a particular ecosystem. So a developer creating an app for Apple’s App Store would have to go through a different process and use a different programming language than if they were creating one for Google’s Play Store. And so on.

Does this mean that we need to talk of a separate 'literacy’ for each ecosystem? Should we define 'Google literacy’ as the skills and competencies required to read, write and participate in Google’s ecosystem? I don’t think so. While there may be variations in the way things are done within the different ecosystems, these procedural elements do not constitute 'literacy’.

What we’re aiming for with the Web Literacy Map is a holistic overview of the skills and competencies people require when using the web. I think at this juncture we’ve got a couple of options. The first would be define 'the web’ more loosely to really mean 'the internet’.

This is John Gruber’s preferred option. He thinks we should focus less on web browsers (i.e. HTML) and more on the connections (i.e. HTTP). For example, in a 2010 talk he pointed out a difference between 'web apps’ and 'browser apps’. His argument rested on a technical point, which he illustrated with an example. When a user scrolls through their timeline using the Twitter app for iPhone, they’re not using a web browser, but they are using HTTP technologies. This, said Gruber, means that ecosystems such as Apple’s and the web are not in opposition to one another.

While this is technically correct, it’s a red herring. HTML does matter because the important thing here is the open web. Check out Gruber’s sleight of hand in this closing paragraph:

Arguments about “open” and “closed” often devolve into unresolvable cross-talk where the two sides have different definitions of what open and closed really mean. But the weird thing about a truly open platform is that its openness allows closed things to be built on top of it. In broad strokes, that’s why GNU/GPL software isn’t “open” in the way that BSD software is (and why Richard Stallman outright rejects the term “open source”). If you expand your view of “the web” from merely that which renders inside the confines of a web browser to instead encompass all network traffic sent over HTTP/S, the explosive growth of native mobile apps is just another stage in the growth of the web. Far from killing it, native apps have made the open web even stronger.

I think Gruber needs to read up on enclosure and the Commons. To use a 16th-century English agricultural metaphor, the important thing isn’t that the grass is growing in the field, it’s that it’s been fenced off and people are excluded.

 A way forward

A second approach is to double-down on what makes the web different and unique. Mozilla’s mission is to promote openness, innovation & opportunity on the web and the Web Literacy Map is a platform for doing this. Even if we don’t tie development of the Web Literacy Map explicitly to the Mozilla manifesto it’s still a key consideration. Therefore, when we’re talking about 'web literacy’ it’s probably more accurate to define it as 'the skills and competencies required to read, write and participate on the open web.

What do we mean by the 'open web’? While Tantek Çelik approaches it from a technical standpoint, I like Brad Neuberg’s (2008) focus on the open web as a series of philosophies:

Decentralization - Rather than controlled by one entity or centralized, the web is decentralized – anyone can create a web site or web service. Browsers can work with millions of entities, rather than tying into one location. It’s not the Google or Microsoft Web, but rather simply the web, an open system that anyone can plug into and create information at the end-points.

Transparency - An Open Web should have transparency at all levels. This includes being able to view the source of web pages; having human-readable network identifiers, such as URLs; and having clear network entry points, such as HTTP and REST exposes.

Hackability - It should be easy to lash together and script the different portions of this web. MySpace, for example, allows users to embed components from all over the web; Google’s AdSense, another example, allows ads to be integrated onto arbitrary web pages. What would you like to hack together, using the web as a base?

Openness - Whether the protocols used are de facto or de-jure, they should either be documented with open specifications or open code. Any entity should be able to implement these standards or use this code to hook into the system, without penalty of patents, copyright of standards, etc.

From Gift Economies to Free Markets - The Open Web should support extreme gift economies, such as open source and Wikis, all the way to traditional free market entities, such as Amazon.com and Google. I call this Freedom of Social Forms; the tent is big enough to support many forms of social and economic organization, including ones we haven’t imagined yet.
Third-Party Integration - At all layers of the system third-parties should be able to hook into the system, whether creating web browsers, web servers, web services, etc.

Third-Party Innovation - Parties should be able to innovate and create without asking the powers-that-be for permission.

Civil Society and Discourse - An open web promotes both many-to-many and one-to-many communication, allowing for millions of conversations by millions of people, across a range of conversation modalities.

Two-Way Communication - An Open Web should allow anyone to assume three different roles: Readers, Writers, and Code Hackers. Readers read content, Writers write content, and Code Hackers hack new network services that empower the first two roles.

End-User Usability and Integration - One of the original insights of the web was to bind all of this together with an easy to use web browser that was integrated for ease of use, despite the highly decentralized nature of the web. The Open Web should continue to empower the mainstream rather than the tech elite with easy to use next generation browsers that are highly usable and integrated despite having an open infrastructure. Open should not mean hard to use. Why can’t we have the design brilliance of Steve Jobs coupled with the geek openness of Steve Wozniak? Making them an either/or is a false dichotomy.

 Conclusion

The Web Literacy Map describes the skills and competencies required to read, write and participate on the open web. But it’s also prescriptive. It’s a way to develop an open attitude towards the world:

Open is a willingness to share, not only resources, but processes, ideas, thoughts, ways of thinking and operating. Open means working in spaces and places that are transparent and allow others to see what you are doing and how you are doing it, giving rise to opportunities for people who could help you to connect with you, jump in and offer that help. And where you can reciprocate and do the same.

Native apps can mitigate against the kind of reciprocity required for an open web. In many ways, it’s the 21st century enclosure of the commons. I believe that web literacy, as defined and promoted through the Web Literacy Map, should not consider native apps part of the open web. Such apps may be built on top of web technologies, they may link to the open web, but native apps are something qualitatively different. Those who want to explore what reading, writing and participating means in closed ecosystems have other vocabularies – provided by media literacy, information literacy, and digital literacy – with which to do so.


Comments? Questions? Direct them here: doug@mozillafoundation.org or discuss this post in the #TeachTheWeb discussion forum

 
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Update (29 May 2013): I’m delighted to announce we’ve been given the go-ahead from the Mozilla Hatchery to pursue this idea further! I met Vinay Gupta in person for the first time recently. He’s a smart guy that counts the the US and UK... Continue →